With five Grammy Awards, tenure in two of rock’s most popular bands and a successful solo career, Michael McDonald still desires commercial success at this point in his life but does not depend on it.
“I hope to capture the public’s imagination but I can’t live in the anxiety of that,” McDonald said in a recent interview with Charleston Scene.
Enjoying that he is no longer a big touring act, McDonald prefers the intimacy of playing smaller venues and festivals, such as his upcoming show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
McDonald joined Steely Dan in the studio and touring in the mid-1970s. However, his more high-profile break came in 1975 when The Doobie Brothers’ leader, Tom Johnston, became ill and had to temporarily exit the band.
McDonald was brought in to supplement singer, guitarist, songwriter and original member, Patrick Simmons.
McDonald’s demo of “Takin’ It to the Streets” so impressed long-time band producer Ted Templeton that the band’s sound morphed from guitar rock to keyboard-centric blues rock.
The band reached its commercial peak with 1978’s “Minute By Minute” album, garnering four Grammy Awards and earning multi-platinum status.
While it would appear from the outside that McDonald was the catalyst to this transformation, he says the change was much more due to the absence of Johnston than his presence.
“The band as a whole made the production arrangements and Pat (Simmons) was the driving force after Tom had to leave,” he said.
McDonald reunited with The Doobie Brothers on “Don’t Say Goodbye” on their 2010 album “World Gone Crazy.”
He calls the release “a great album,” adding, “the band sounds better than ever.”
McDonald repeated twice the fond memories of that time in the studio saying, “It was great fun, great joy and a great excuse to get together. I truly cherish the time and experience with friends that I have been making music with for so many years, even decades now.”
When the Doobie Brothers broke up in the early 1980s, McDonald pursued a successful solo career. As popular music shifted to a distinctive style, friend and collaborator Ed Sanford asked McDonald why he always plays rhythm and blues and told him he needed to be more ’80s.
McDonald laughs at the memory and said, “Yes, everyone wants to be in step with the style of the time and what is popular. But I was already old in the ’80s and I didn’t want to reinvent myself just because someone said things are different.”
McDonald also continued to work with other artists as varied as Van Halen and Aretha Franklin.
With his tribute album to the Motown sound, simply titled “Motown,” McDonald earned two Grammy nominations. This subsequently led to “Motown Two” the following year.
Current music release
McDonald’s solo efforts include numerous duets with other singers, such as 1985’s Grammy-winning “Ya Mo B There” with James Ingram and in the following year the chart-topping single “On My Own” with Patti LaBelle.
With “Unfinished Business,” however, McDonald teamed up with heralded guitarist Robben Ford.
“I had written with Ford in the past and it was productive and fun, so we decided to take it a step further in the process,” McDonald said.
While they had hoped to complete a full album, with both their busy schedules and families, they decided to abridge the self-funded 2013 release into a four-song EP.
The title, “Unfinished Business,” reflects the process and unplanned result that happened.
“We had enough songs but we weren’t happy with some of the tracks, so we just went ahead and released what we liked,” McDonald said.
Eclectic best describes the collection of songs. “La Marea Humana” opens with an airy and stripped sound. A straight-ahead rock song follows in “Judgment Day” and continues the EP’s most radio-friendly tune, “Perfect Illusion.” The effort concludes with the bluesy “Long Haul.”
“I’ve always been an artist that has had a problem with genres, staying in the box and being told what I had to be,” McDonald said.
He reflected favorably on the period when he was growing up when the music industry and specifically the artistry component were more adventurous. He cited Stevie Wonder’s diverse releases in the mid-1970s and specifically James Taylor’s “Gorilla.”
“Despite his earlier success, that album was completely different from what he had done before. Each song was a different story. The whole thing was a journey,” McDonald said.
He stated the approach with the EP was not to over-think anything, to go in whatever direction any individual song led them and whatever music came out was fine the way it was.
The next generation
Just as fellow Doobie Brothers’ member Tom Johnston’s daughter is pursuing a career in music, so, too, is McDonald’s son, Dylan.
Father and son are working together on an album with original songs by both and covers of Bob Marley, The Beach Boys, Radiohead and Stealers Wheel.
Michael McDonald said while he’s had fun working together with his son, he saw his biggest task as “showing support and giving confidence so he wouldn’t feel like scrapping everything and starting over.”